Not for the faint of heart

December 05, 2021

In the absence of a community space dedicated to fiction writers in the city, author and academic Kanza Javed’s creative writing workshop at LUMS was an oasis

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The workshop showed that one cannot let one’s words run free on paper without a purpose. — Images: Supplied

During my undergrad years, the one thing I hated more than the café food was academic writing. In my first semester, we were made to take a course that taught us how to format our research papers, the appropriate academic jargon which should be used and how research should be conducted.

As years passed, I felt restricted in the formulaic academic writing. There was no place for my creativity in the 12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced Word documents.

I was lucky that I got professors who let me show my creativity in their classes. For classes that required research papers, I got away with incorporating the course’s syllabus in fiction which I not only enjoyed writing more but which helped me engage with the contents of the course that would otherwise be lost on me.

It wasn’t until I was offered Creative Writing in my fourth semester during my undergrad that my mind opened up to the power of fiction and poetry writing. I realised that being a ‘good’ writer wasn’t enough; one had to acquaint oneself with the technique of writing fiction and poetry as well.

Recently, when I heard about noted Pakistani author and academic Kanza Javed’s Fiction Writing Workshop at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), I saw this as my chance to reinforce some of the techniques I had learnt at the university.

For context, I was introduced to Javed while I was making a feminist analysis of Pakistani English literature for my final-year thesis. My supervisor advised me to look at her novel, Ashes, Wine and Dust. Thus, began a cross-continental search for her book which was not available in Pakistan due to the halt on imports from India.

Disappointed by bookstores, even those dealing in old books, throughout Lahore and Karachi as well as Amazon, my last hope was Islamabad. To my utter surprise, I found a copy at a bookstore there. Two days later, my copy had been delivered at my doorstep. I finished reading the novel over the next four days, and for a long time was filled with the lingering melancholia from Javed’s prose.

In October this year, I enrolled at the Fiction Writing Workshop at LUMS where I met with an immediately fun Kanza Javed, as opposed to the image of a sombre person I had in mind of her.

We were a cohort of 13 people, all belonging to different age groups and professions. Javed treated us all with the same compassion and understanding. She laid special emphasis on familiarising herself with the work of each of us, recognising our strengths, pointing out the weaknesses and giving helpful feedback on how we could approach a piece of writing better.

Kanza Javed laid special emphasis on reading.

The cohort of 13 people included students, a graphic designer, a teacher, a caterer, and some people from the field of marketing. Each one of them had a unique voice, something we discovered once we started workshopping our short stories.

On the fifth day of our workshop, she declared, “Writers require a lot of care and nurture of invisible people.” I pondered over what she had said, for a while. Then she went on to explain how writing was an incredibly lonely task, and how writers often get lost in the worlds they create and the characters they give birth to.

Most of the times, she was incredibly philosophical in the class. She’d lure us in with her words and make us believe in the magic and power of fiction writing and what it could achieve. When she had our attention, she’d shatter the world around us by saying things like, “Some of you will give up writing after this!”

This is why Javed’s workshop is not for the faint of heart. She is honest. At times, too honest. During the course of the workshop, my confidence as a writer was shattered, rebuilt, shattered again. It currently lies somewhere bordering on self-doubt and overconfidence. But there’s one thing I know of: I’ll walk out of the workshop a better writer.

A crucial part of our workshop was the tasks given to us at the end of each class. These included reading, writing and watching craft talks.

Javed always made it a point to emphasise on how listening to her writing advice was a choice. She said she would always be honest in her critique, but listening to her was ultimately up to us. This made sense to me, since writing is an incredibly personal experience.

However, Javed laid special emphasis on reading. It was through her assigned readings that I came across writers whose techniques I enjoyed and followed to develop my own writing style.

The four-week workshop helped me realise that you cannot let your words run free on paper without a purpose. Profound and beautiful prose is of no use if it lacks resolve.

We were given writing prompts during classes that helped us produce writing on time constraints. Never before did I think of writing as something that could be commanded. While creativity may be an ongoing process, the fiction writing workshop brought us one step closer through Javed’s thoroughness in helping us master the technique of writing.

My takeaway from the workshop is that writing isn’t the ‘holy’ act everyone makes it out to be. There are no revelations. You have to learn the techniques and components of fiction writing, only then can you give your thoughts a shape. Once you’ve mastered the technique, fiction is limitless. You have the power to evoke the reader’s empathy, make them feel something, or simply offer them an escape into a world created by you.

The cohort of 13 people included students, a graphic designer, a teacher, a caterer, and some people from the field of marketing. Each one of them had a unique voice, something we discovered once we started workshopping our short stories.

Finally, there is little or no space for writers in Lahore where they can come together, produce, critique and help develop one another as writers. Kanza Javed’s workshop provided us with exactly that. Through classroom discussions, writing and learning the craft of fiction writing, we came together and grew as writers. That is why writing workshops, which offer an environment where writers can come together, are crucial. Not all writers have the means to make their voices heard. Give the right tools to your emerging writers and see what they will come up with.

The writer is a liberal arts graduate from BNU

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